It’s seems that the term “trigger” is more and more in the public lexicon. Moreso as a joke (Ex: *sees something remotely disagreeable*, “Oh, I’ve been triggered!”. Ex2: “Trigger warning: happy people”) and collective irritation. Back in 2015, the Atlantic had an article called “How Trigger Warnings are Hurting Mental Health on Campus” and that set off a spark that basically let people show their best ableism.
For those that care not to read or are already familiar with the concept of “butthurt babyboomers*“, it basically is a writer whinging about how having trigger warnings, such as “Ahead: Rape, Violence” in classes makes young, millennial college students emotionally feeble and ill-equipped to handle the real world…despite the fact anyone could argue that anyone who needs a “rape” trigger warning before being old enough to go to college already got a crash course in how the real world is cold and evil. It probably would have been a better article if it were about the fact that there’s a lot of really bad things in society that traumatizes people at an early age and how it can cause a ripple effect in their life, like rape. I guess the writers would have thought “Ehhhh, let Ta-Nehisi Cotes handle it, he always writes about dumb and weepy sh*t.”
I’m not going to break down the article because that’s not prompted this column. It’s the fact that a lot of people still seem to not get that mental health is pretty important…unless a mass shooting happens, then everyone wants to talk about how they want to keep crazy people away from teh gunz. This is inaccurate because the average mass shooter is White, male, 15-28, Christian or culturally Christian-leaning, dealing with humiliation/anger (not mental illness) and very, very lucid about the world and themselves – basically, not crazy, just very hateful and inspired to be violent.
I’ve written a number of columns/posts here about mental illness, triggers and stuff like that. Probably to the point that folks are wondering “Does she even talk spells and magick anymore? It’s all about being Black and mentally ill.” A) Now you know why this blog is from a Black Pagan Perspective. B) Of course I do! It’s just dealing with systemic ills can really take a lot of my time C) I’m not Silver Ravenwolf, geez.
Triggers, as they’re commonly known, are not for all disorders. Some disorders do not need triggers to go into action, like depression and schizophrenia. Rather, it’s anxiety disorders (Ex: OCD) and trauma disorders (Ex: PTSD) that tend to get use out of trigger warnings because they tell people “Eh, you probably don’t wanna see this if you’re not interested in having an impromptu episode” and the person affected can move on about their day. Technically, society already has a lot of trigger warnings: Video games have ratings, movies have ratings (remember how not-smart parents took their kids to see Deadpool, and discovered within the first half hour how it earned the R-rating?), even television shows have ratings – I remember when those weren’t a thing until the 90s because parents started complaining – everything has ratings that serve as warnings of “if this bothers you or your kids, don’t watch”. Music has “Explicit” warnings on them. Even news programs and documentaries have “May contain graphic/disturbing images, viewer discretion is advised” before they start with the disturbing stuff.
Funny those didn’t prompt articles from The Atlantic about how we live in a bubble-wrap society.
Let’s be quick about this, how about we take a proverbial person who is likely traumatized and benefits from trigger warnings everyone else thinks they need to stop being a pansy about: A US soldier that got back from two tours in the sandbox, now gets tetchy when someone plays Call of Duty or Modern Warfare because, unlike the gamer ragging about triggers, they actually served a call of duty in modern warfare. Twice.
Nah, too easy. And it’s September!
Our proverbial person will be a 9/11 survivor. For the lolz, everyone, because this is just an example. (If you lived through 9/11 as a NYC’er, get an ice cream and speed scroll until the text color changes back to normal. Or click here to the rest of the column. I’m not interested in triggering people to explain to the stupid why their “triggered” jokes suck.)
Our person, “Suv” is their name, is a regular person, a joe-on-the-go type that enjoys Broadways and boxing matches on tv. A regular American, works a job, goes home, eats and goes to sleep. Suv is just a regular New Yorker living in the boroughs. Working as a package carrier, he tries to stay afloat as he nearly gets mowed down by at least five taxis a day trying to race a package from one end of Manhattan to another. It’s a crap job but it is what it is, puts food on the table and keeps the roommate from planning his death for insurance money when the rent is due.
Everyday basically is the same but instead this time is different. Late to work, stuck in traffic on his beat-up Cannondale, already can hear the sussing he’s going to get from his manager. Casually looking up, he sees the NYC skyline is always what it is – with exception to now the North Tower of the twin towers now has a plane parked firmly in it from a booming second ago. Suv thinks it’s a mistake and gets to the sidewalk to avoid drivers now confused and panicked. The twin towers aren’t far, basically a few blocks up and near the deli joint he likes to pit stop at for free snacks from the owner, an old high school buddy.
Keeping watch of the skyline as time passes, there’s chatter abound from the radios and screens around. Frankly, while there are stories getting tossed about here and there, no one really knows what is going on. But by a little after 9 AM, it was pretty certain the “it was an accident” theory was not it: second tower was hit and Suv totally saw it. Looked like a B-rated movie, the wall buckling like phony cardboard when the plane hit it. Couldn’t be fake but Suv couldn’t help feeling it was. Officers were already trying to corral the crowd, saying help is on the way, firefighters have already been called, gawking isn’t solving anything, so on and so forth.
Now, the day was pretty chaotic, Suv got scared, didn’t know what to do but go forward because all he figured was he needed to get some place safe and his buddy was up the way a little. Nobody really stopped him pedaling towards the towers until a cop nearly ripped him off his bike, barking at him to go turn back and go home. Not really sure what to do because the streets were glutted with onlookers, cars and commotion, he just stayed and watched. The officer that was fussing at him was more busy fussing at others and listening to his radio transmitter so Suv didn’t have to worry.
After watching people jumping, towers burning and more noises up and down the street in an absolute daze, eventually he saw the South Tower fall. Feeling like it was just a bad disaster movie, Suv kept watching until a random tourist yanked the back of his shirt and told him to start moving, “Drop your bike and run.” Suv glanced at his bike and thought that the person was crazy because bikes are faster than people and this splotchy blue Cannondale may be part rust bucket but it’s his bread and butter. Instead, he tries to bike away but wobbles as he couldn’t get in a stride among the panicked crowd rushing into him and past him. There were shoes and briefcases on the ground, he eventually had to get off and run aside his bike. Everything was loud but the growing thunder was louder and looking over his shoulder as he hurried along, he saw why.
Never was Suv in a dust storm before, he didn’t know they were so fast. They always looked so slow and far away on tv. While he thought he was making some headway escaping the growing plume behind him, another enveloped from the side in a rush of grey. Quickly pulling up his collar to hide his nose and seeing nothing while feeling everything, Suv felt for a wall, any wall with a corner. Finding one, he sat behind the corner with his eyes closed and half his face tucked well under his shirt. He tightly crouched against the wall behind his bike, covered face tucked into his legs, dust getting everywhere.
Eventually dust subsides, Suv is found by a gray-covered officer who saw him huddled behind a newspaper stand and wondered if he was one of the dead. Trying to regain sight, Suv makes his way back home.
Throughout the years, Suv basically lives a normal life. 9/11 was a bad day but it didn’t happen to just him, he figured. If anything, besides a national memory, he thinks it doesn’t affect him much. He doesn’t really dwell on the day much and still lives the average NYC life of trying to deliver packages around the city. Granted, as he tells it, planes and tall buildings make him a bit “weird” – but it’s nothing serious. He’s not like those people who survived the Titanic and became spooked by seeing ice in their drinks. He just don’t like hearing or seeing planes and he’s always had a fear of heights, it’s just a tad worse now. Blue skies make him a bit antsy, always glancing at them but no one’s ever really picked up on that.
When he went to see his sister in Oklahoma City, he took a train, thinking it would be nice to trip through America even though it took hours longer than a plane, which is what his sister suggested. Besides, Suv never took a train before, so what if his sister didn’t like waiting a bit longer? It’s his money and a new experience.
Oklahoma City was a fun experience. He laughed, he hanged with his sister, made fun of her boyfriend’s Midwest accent at every opportunity, ate food, bought an “I’m OK” shirt and went home.
During the train ride, some teenager beside him was asleep with his iPod going and the earbuds were awful. They might as well be re-classed as “muffled speakers” because Suv could hear everything. Including the new B.O.B. song, “Airplanes”. That didn’t sit too well with Suv. In a flash, he started to feel panicked and worried. He couldn’t really get much of a grip on himself but the song kept bringing him back to nine years ago, where he stood on the sidewalk and faced the dust, the jumpers and the tragedy. He simply couldn’t breathe. Hearing the lyric of “if airplanes were shooting stars” simply got to him and he was curling up, waiting for the dust to come.
Nobody really paid attention to him except for an attendant, wondering why a passenger was having a panic attack. Figuring that perhaps he’s just not good with trains and hoping that’s all he was, the attendant came over with a bottle of water and reaches over the sleeping teen to get Suv’s attention. She did, but his petrified look made her jump a little. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost, can I offer a water? Do you need to go to the restroom? It’s in the next car.”
Suv thought it was the officer that tapped his shoulder but instead it was an attendant, which made him feel embarrassed. He probably looked so wild a second ago. Trying to figure out his breathing pattern, he takes the water and tries to make light conversation to beat back the awkwardness as there was a different song playing now, “Is there an air marshal on board?”
This confuses the train attendant. She corrects, “This is a train, that’s for airplanes. However, you’re safe on a train, nothing ever happens here. If you need to go to the restroom, it’s in the next car.” Suv is a bit embarrassed but somewhat relieved.
Despite this one moment, Suv thought he was mostly unaffected by 9/11. If anything, he just chalked up what happened on the train as a “weird” moment and tried to focus on getting back home. Thing is, Suv has these “moments” pretty frequently, according to his roommate.
The roomie always played the buffer by noting when Suv was getting into his “weird” state and just would whisper to people, “He was at the Twin Towers.” People would be more accommodating without Suv knowing why and all was hunky dory. When Suv would come home and complain about people being douches because he didn’t like delivering to airports or tall buildings, the roomie knew it was because he wasn’t around to brief anyone. He was okay with doing it but, just like one kid pointed out to the roomie as Suv was pacing a Duane Reade once: “9/11 was nearly a decade ago, why isn’t he over it?” The roomie wasn’t interested in playing The Therapist forever, just like the last roommate didn’t. Nor the one Suv originally came home to, coughing and choking from the debris. Suv’s a cool dude but he lives in NYC, planes and skyscrapers are pretty much New York City. As time goes on, less and less people are getting accommodating about Suv’s “weirdness”, especially younger people, even in New York. Seems like everyone is moving on but Suv.
Eventually, Suv moves to Chicago. NYC is getting pricy and Chicago seems like a slower city, his roomie mentioned and he agreed. It annoys the roomie that Suv has to go by train or bus or driving but no planes. At all. The roomie even suggests that he takes a plane and Suv gets there however he wants to but Suv wasn’t hearing any of it. Every time the roomie asked, “What are you afraid of? Nobody’s gonna hijack the plane!”, that pretty much derailed every conversation into a big argument that then derailed into the roomie dealing with Suv’s freakout sessions. Once, Suv even had a meltdown about the fact they were living on the seventh floor in the middle of an argument. A week or two of conversation and arguments, it was agreed they would drive to Chicago, all their stuff in tow.
Chicago was nice. Cold but nice. The new place was a second floor apartment. Both roomie and Suv could land jobs so no one had to survive on peanut butter cookies like they did for the first two weeks after all the gas money, on top of rest of their moving expenses, drained their pockets. Suv was adjusting way better, he wasn’t checking the sky as much, there weren’t as many planes and not so much skyscrapers.
Once it wasn’t so cold, Suv and roomie walked around Chicago and headed to the downtown area. Suv was feeling a bit alert because of the masses of people milling about him as his roomie walked aside him, attempting to throw bits of hot dog buns at the pigeons, but for the most part, Suv was fine. He always felt a bit alert when outside and not on his bike so this was his normal. They walked past the building originally named the Sears Tower and saw a tour ad stating “Visit the Observation Deck of the Willis Tower, one of the tallest buildings in the world at 108 stories! Come inside for details!” Suv went into full blown panic, even the roomie was surprised. All Suv could feel was terror and he couldn’t breathe again.
It wasn’t smart and Suv knew it but he looked up. And in his head, he just saw a plane plow into the building. The roomie, knowing the drill, tried to tell the security guard by the door, “He saw 9/11 up close and personal, he ain’t gonna hurt anybody, just freaking out. Can we go inside?” This made Suv respond worse because there was no way he was going into a building that’s going to eventually collapse and kill everybody. “We have to get NYPD,” is all Suv said, attracting a crowd and their camera phones. The roomie, not at all an extrovert, was about to have a meltdown himself from all the attention. Suv spotted a hot dog cart, expecting the impending dust cloud, and hides behind it, covering his nose. He wasn’t in Chicago, it was New York City again.
Alright – that was longer than even I anticipated and I’m the writer. I tried to make it as brief as possible so I could make my point.
So, Suv here, has a trauma disorder, he has PTSD. His triggers, if you couldn’t tell, were airplanes and tall buildings. They were beyond phobias like Suv was playing them up to be. Here’s what makes what he has PTSD:
He dissociated: His brain dissociated from the tragedy that was around him and made him think he was watching (not “in”, “watching“) a bad disaster movie. Meaning, his brain pretty much attempted to block out the fright of the situation and make it seem unreal. Technically, this is a derealization episode Suv had. Despite that, it’s like his brain plays the bad movie over and over again years later and, this time, he’s part of it.
He’s hyper-vigilant: Watches the skies a lot, especially if they’re blue skies (because the sky was practically crystal clear on 9/11). He may not know it but this is pretty much a “trauma-time” because he’s actually looking for planes, fearful of seeing another attack, despite the fact that it’s been years. Says he has a phobia of heights, thus why planes and skyscrapers bother him but frankly, it’s because he had seen a plane plow into a tower with his own eyes. Twice. He also saw people jump to their death from the towers.
He’s anxious: Sees a plane or skyscraper? Reminded of planes and skyscrapers? He doesn’t handle it well. It makes him “anxious”, as he likes to call it. His roommate would describe it better as “terrified”. So would the onlookers in Chicago seeing his breakdown by the Sears Towers, if not “tetchy”.
Has flashbacks: Gets triggered, he’ll think it’s 9/11 all over again. (This is why it’s important to be mindful of triggers) He doesn’t have to see a plane plow into a building, his brain will play it out for him instead, which is hyper-realization as his mind superimposes the attacks on tall buildings. Basically, he’s reliving the event. Why, he even started to relive the event from a song that had nothing to do with terrorism, 9/11 or anything, it was a reference to planes as a simile.
Became event-evasive: Suv had a sudden preference for ground transportation (cars, buses, trains) instead of air flight, even if flying was the easier/cheaper option.
When faced with his triggers (planes, tall buildings), Suv couldn’t separate modern day from 9/11, even a decade later. Granted, I could have gone deeper and brought up terrible sleeping troubles, being hyper-associated with the number 9/11 to the point Suv wouldn’t want to call 911 for help or things like that but all those experiences are from trauma. Just like any person with trauma, it’s difficult to manage with triggers, even worse when you don’t really know what’s going on because you didn’t know it was PTSD.
Granted, here comes the question: “What? Are we supposed to magically know that this guy is a 9/11 Survivor and never talk about planes or buildings ever? Wouldn’t it be easier for this dude to move to some meadow and deal with it that way?”
No. It would be up to Suv on whether or not he should disclose that he saw 9/11 and that those are his triggers. However, it would be easier if people didn’t openly and continually discount the simple fact that folks have them. (Remember, he didn’t want to see himself as just like those who survived the Titanic and couldn’t have ice cubes in their drinks as a result because it reminded them of the iceberg). In a way, he was trying to tell people he had triggers but didn’t call them that, he just said planes and tall buildings made him a bit “weird” because he didn’t want to come off as hyper-sensitive or crazy. If anything, he was downplaying his reaction, which is what people with trauma tend to do because of the stigma.
It’s not easy to tell who has what trauma. Suv could even mistakenly set off another survivor with a loud ringtone if that other survivor had a trigger about sirens and loud noises. People with trauma don’t like to wear what their buttons are on their sleeve.
Also, running away isn’t always an option for the traumatized. And sometimes the traumatized don’t want to run away because it’s almost like saying “I’m affected”, which people don’t like to think of themselves after a trauma.
If anything, it’s pretty obvious that Suv is going to have to get help for his trauma because it does indeed affect him a lot but it’s not uncommon for people to go years without getting help. Sometimes, intense reactions are delayed, it can take years for something to blip up as intensely like what Suv experienced on the train, several years later after the attacks. Either way, it’s better to be mindful and not be a terrible person about the fact that someone has triggers.
Out of all this, note that the roomie does not have a trauma. Yes, he was eventually distressed from the crowd gathering due to Suv’s episode but “being the center of attention” is not a trigger or trauma. It’s normal to be anxious when the center of attention, especially if you’re not accustomed to it. Suv had a trigger to his traumatic episodes, something that reminded him of his traumatic experience. That’s why they’re called “triggers”. Just like how peanuts can trigger an allergic episode, certain things can trigger a trauma episode. However, no one jokes about the fact that people can be allergic to things like shellfish or wheat, nor do people joke about how epipens are very expensive and how they’re so unnecessary because it’s just getting in the way of evolution sorting itself out. Or if someone does joke about that, they’re seen as a terrible person because folks can’t help the fact they have allergies others should be mindful about.
As always, I explain to people the best way to deal with the fact that some people have triggers is to think of it like allergies. You can’t look at someone and say, “Yep, I know they’re definitely allergic to cotton. Totes.” Or feed someone fish and automatically know that their throat is about to close up in a few minutes. Or that they have asthma. Or anything, really. It’s why people, including myself, wear medical bracelets. It’s why people check the labels at the back of products. Folks who are impacted with their issues try to sort out their lives to make it easier on themselves (note Suv had rather take ground transportation and avoid tall buildings instead of simply just not leaving his home). That’s people taking care of themselves and their disabilities, not wallowing about totally helpless.
However, imagine folks did make fun of having food allergies and trolled about over the epipen. That means there wouldn’t be really any open discussion about the jack-up in price, how people can have cheaper alternatives, so on and so forth. No one is really shamed for talking about Claritin because they have seasonal allergies. No one mimics people having hives or sneezing attacks because it’s funny. If anything, it would be seen as odd, like the person simply didn’t understand the human experience or concept of allergies. Granted people do try to offer snake oil methods for allergies but for the most part, no one would tell people, “don’t take your Benadryl, that’s what’s making you sick” or “you need to grow up and overcome your allergy. I had the same allergy as a kid and now I don’t!” and those who do sound downright mental or overwhelmingly stupid. Just apply that to triggers.
If someone has a trigger, don’t shun them or make fun of the fact that people have triggers. It makes people talk less about their traumas, and even incredibly less in how to handle them. Imagine people never getting help for their allergies because someone thought the fact they had any was idiotic. That would be a lot of miserable and/or dead people. Instead of trying to have a sonic ear for those who have traumatic experiences, try not to rag on the fact that there are people who do actually have them. Yeah, anyone can make fun of Suv for the fact that planes and skyscrapers bother him because it seems so ridiculous on its face. Or the fact that a simple pop song can send him into a tizzy. However, it’s not so funny how he got his trauma yet the same person who would probably make fun of Suv would possibly be reading this post right now and say “OMGZ, Black Witch is sooooooo disrespectful to people who went thru 9/11! Never forget!”
To sum it up, triggers are not light, non-happy reactions that only weak people have because they’re weak. They’re a psychological response and earmark to a greater trauma previously experienced. It’s best to treat them as such.
*If babyboomer and butthurt about this phrase, take a bit of your own medicine: stop being sensitive. And croak already.